BOSTON -- The burly man with the bushy moustache sips his Samuel Adams beer in the Ritz-Carlton bar near Newbury Street, a shopper's paradise, and says to his wife, ''Joan, there is somewhere in the middle of the Arabian peninsula you would like to shop. You would like to shop in Iran.''
Tough guy, right? Wrong. Robert B. Parker, author of 16 novels featuring the private eye Spenser, is, I regret to report, a gentleman. That may explain why Spenser is becoming that annoying paragon, ''The Eighties Man.'' Spenser is becoming . . . sensitive.
Time was when the fictional private eye was an unreconstructed primitive, not a reproach. He smoked like a chimney, his only exercise (aside from punching people) was bending his elbow, he was decidedly pre-Miranda in his construction of criminals' rights, he read nothing but racetrack tout sheets and ate in greasy spoons. He represented the anarchic impulse that we who wear civilization's bridle can express only by identifying with a fictional private eye.
Now he is being taken from us. The melancholy decline of the detective into good character, '80s-style, was sealed in 1985, in the 12th Spenser novel when Spenser used the R-word. He said to his lover, Susan Silverman, ''I'd be pleased to spend the rest of my life working on this relationship.''
That is the voice of the new ideal, the Vulnerable Man. Can you imagine the word ''relationship'' issuing from the lips from which Bogart's cigarette drooped?
In a nifty essay in Harper's, Charles Nicol notes that today's fictional detectives are becoming domesticated, as the essay's droll title suggests: ''The Hard-Boiled Go to Brunch.'' The hard-boiled are becoming good eggs, have ''gone from Mean Street to Easy Street and moved in with Ozzie and Harriet,'' where they are practicing connoisseurship and aerobics.
The closing of the frontier in the 1890s drove the cowboy to town, where he became a detective. Nowadays in town, Spenser dines in yupped-up restaurants thick with hanging plants that remind him of Rousseau's paintings. Spenser does occasionally drink too many margaritas, but then he goes jogging, lifts weights, does gourmet cooking and soaks up poetry like a sponge who has earned a PhD in English lit. Parker did that, writing a dissertation on ''The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality,'' a study of some fictional detectives.
Nicol recalls D. H. Lawrence's judgment that James Fenimore Cooper's frontiersman, Leatherstocking, was ''a saint with a gun . . . an isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man. . . the very intrinsic-most American.'' Later, Leatherstocking, private eye, opened a walk-up office in the inner city. And today his gumshoes are Nikes that cushion the concrete.
Parker's novels, which will gross about $5 million for Dell this year, are used in some schools for delinquent children to get the rascals to read. Young readers get a satisfying amount of toughness (especially from Spenser's black sidekick, Hawk -- Sancho Panza with a black belt) with some poetry insinuated.
''Hawk and I stood still. No onegot out of the car. 'The only sound's the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.' Hawk unsnapped his Red Sox jacket . . .''
''Death is the mother of beauty,'' Spenser remarks when Susan says that life's hazardousness makes things more precious. Spenser descends steps ''with wand'ring steps and slow.'' When he jokes with Susan about being too tough to get sunburned, she murmurs, ''I'd smite the sun if it offended me.'' He tells a friend that the noblest love exists ''only when love and need are one and the work is play for mortal stakes.'' Recovering from a reverie, he says, ''Human voices wake us and we drown.'' When Susan suggests he propose marriage, he says, ''Songs unheard are sweeter far.'' When feeling amorous, he says to Susan: ''Complacencies of the peignoir and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, and the green freedom of a cockatoo upon a rug.'' She, ever sassy, says: ''I never heard it called that.''
Tough guys of yesteryear were not given to speaking with the tongues of (in the paragraph above) Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Milton, Shakespeare, Frost again, Eliot, Keats, Stevens again. (Parker says the passages are sometimes not quite accurate because Spenser calls them up from memory.)
Joan, like Susan, is an employee of the Massachusetts Department of Education, and has what may be an Eighties Woman's unconcern about the fact that millions of readers think Susan's sex life is hers. Parker growls, ''I've toned it down for publication.''
Now that's hard-boiled, right? No, he still has a soft yolk as he and Joan walk into the misty autumn evening up Newbury Street holding hands.